By KIRSTEN KUPPENBENDER
Is the Whole Foods salad bar making you profoundly sad? This is an existential question that playwright Bekah Brunstetter wants you to think really hard about.
The L.A. playwright's new play, The Oregon Trail, is a brilliant coming-of-age story that hits Portland Center Stage this fall as part of its Northwest Stories series.
On the same stage, two young women both named Jane live in perilous parallel universes. One might die of typhoid. The other is a smelly 13-year-old suffering through middle school. The "Then Jane" character is a pioneer inside the Oregon Trail computer game. It's 1848 and she is headed on an epic, cross-country journey from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in a covered wagon. She is fighting off disease, hunting for food and trying to make it through the day without losing another family member to snakebite, typhoid or cholera. "Now Jane," is headed absolutely nowhere. She is smelly, awkward and about as brave as a sweat sock. The 13-year-old Jane has mastered the game, but she certainly has not mastered adolescence.
The Oregon Trail deals with depression head-on as it negotiates time, space, weird circumstances and what it really means to struggle. "If you're traversing the country with your family, you can't say to your mom and dad, 'I'm too sad to get out of the wagon today,'" says Brunstetter. "You've just gotta fucking keep going." Being depressed wasn't an option in Brunstetter's family either, she says. "I was raised in a bootstrap family that didn't indulge that sort of thing. You don't go to therapy."
But when Brunstetter saw some of her closest friends struggling with depression, her outlook changed. "I started to see the other side of it," she says, "that when you are going through depression there's actually something kind of beautiful about how deeply you're feeling your feelings."
She also became fascinated with epigenetics, the theory that trauma gets imprinted in our DNA.
Enter The Oregon Trail. We no longer have to hunt buffalo. So, are we depressed simply because we have the too much time on our hands and can explore our emotional responses to life rather than looking for potable water? "The fact that we go to Whole Foods to get our salads frees up so much more space to just worry," says Brunstetter, "which leads to this profound sadness."
The Oregon Trail, Brunstetter says, "is about all the people who died so we can sit in our apartments and worry existentially."
It's a reminder that it is always darkest before the dawn—especially prior to the invention of electric lights.
The Oregon Trail is at the U.S. Bank Main Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday. Extra matinees at noon on Thursdays. Nov. 4-20. $25-$70.